Chelsea’s Premier League campaign is no longer the assured path it once was. With Easter now only a memory, the final stretch of the football season is upon us with Antonio Conte stressing about his side’s real title credentials. Front runners since the autumn months, Chelsea are now feeling the breath of Tottenham right down their necks and it isn’t pleasant.
Slip-ups happen for any side, but two in close succession like Chelsea have suffered spring’s doubts. The manner of the defeats differed, though. Crystal Palace sucker punched and defended for their dear lives, while Manchester United restricted any attacking intent Chelsea could muster and slammed them with the pace of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.
A back three gives wide berths for runners to expose, though none have done it quite like United did this season. A previous shining armour at the base of the Chelsea team is not just cracking, it has rusted and rapidly needs gluing back together.
The upcoming opponents, then, are Tottenham. Not in a league title showdown as such, but in a Wembley FA Cup semi-final that will serve as a marker for the final days of this epic Premier League season.
Spurs are flying. Seven straight league wins and a firing attack has seen them outperform even the most optimistic of late-winter expectations. Each shot seems destined for the corner of the net, while the defence continues to protect Hugo Lloris with the resilience of Kevlar.
The outcome at Wembley will have a huge impact on the title race and it’s damn tricky to argue otherwise. The ‘momentum’ and confidence taken out of that match really will make all the difference.
Chelsea, however, must find a route to fix their problems. Their defence is performing at an unsustainably poor level right now, but are now expected to welcome back Thibaut Courtois and Marcos Alonso – whose respective absences hurt them dearly at Old Trafford.
With so much riding on their Wembley outing, Chelsea will feel the pressure even heavier on their shoulders. Defensively, though, answers must be found. Spurs ended Chelsea’s winning streak earlier in the season with their fluid offensive play and energetic press, now it is down to Conte to find a means of dealing with the white-hot North London side.
Should Saturday evening’s encounter go against the Blues, they will face yet more questions over their title credentials. Were they really just riding the crest of a wave? Have they been found out?
Saturday is their chance to put all of those to bed and do it with aplomb. The doubts, if not, will only amplify and make their crusade towards a fifth Premier League title infinitely trickier.